So THAT’S the problem

Progress on Tallulah: I have taken the handful of chapters that “could work” as something to build on from the current manuscript, copied-and-pasted them over to a new folder, and am now waiting for them to sprout leaves or something. The point is I did something and now I’m waiting for me to do the next thing.

How to brain? I am not know?

But I knew this would happen, and that’s why I did it: I’m in the trepidation stage – or state – that tends to accompany Big Decisions, even if that Big Decision is nothing more than writing a book. Which honestly is not a very big decision. It’s only a big decision if you bring the fantasy into it, the fantasy of staying up nights agonising over X and Y details, of reaching a speed-bump and being unable to get over it for days or even weeks, only settling for a mediocre solution because you’re too exhausted to reach your creative potential and having to *gasp* deal with it and move on, of it consuming months if not years of your life where, for some reason, you won’t get anything else done – or, worse, you’ll have so many other things to do that you’ll constantly be picking up and putting down the threads of your story until you either forget which one goes where, or you stop caring altogether, making the entire enterprise a complete waste of time.

So today when I found this article on Form vs Formula, written by Shawn Coyne (I have no idea who that is but he wrote a book about writing and is an editor so yeah), I had a moment of much-needed recognition. The anecdote is that the editor was recommended an unpublished writer who had great potential but whose stories “just didn’t work”, agreed to work with them on a new story on a profit-sharing basis as she didn’t have money to cover the usual editorial fee, and got to discussing how the story should go using his (I assumed patented) “Story Grid” technique to make it work better:

Coincidentally, she told me that she had a draft of a book she’d written with a similar character in her closet.

She suggested that we begin with that draft to see if there was anything salvageable from it.

This is when I started to get nervous. But I relented. Maybe the manuscript could give us some direction…never say never, right? Why reinvent something that has already worked?

This was the moment of recognition for me. I’ve already written these chapters, there’s stuff in there that could be useful, so why write it off entirely? The thing is, though, that this is more of a “putting-off” strategy than a “moving forward” strategy: I know what’s in these chapters, I know what will and won’t work in the re-imagining of the story I have in mind already without even reading them (not to mention that I read that manuscript at least four times over to make notes, albeit over a year ago, but my point is that I am fairly familiar with the material) – I have some work that’s “already done”, and the implicit catch to re-using that work – which I was very aware of when I made the decision to build my new plan on its back – is the rhetorical question of: “well, I’ve already done the work. Why bother with anything else?”

Which doesn’t make sense if you look at it for more than two seconds, but if you’re already aware that you’re stalling for time because you have anxiety or just really bad habits you’re still in the process of un-learning – which I do and am – then logic doesn’t matter. Excuses matter. That’s why it’s a rhetorical question: the answer is “I don’t wanna”, and that’s all that matters.

And as Coyne’s story progresses, this turns out to be the case for his client as well:

I read her abandoned book and it had some really great moments. Innovative turns of phrase, some seriously frightening scenes. Overall, it gave me even more confidence in her abilities. But it most certainly did not work. It never paid off the promise of the hook in an inevitable, yet surprising way. She did not disagree.

As writers, we learn a hell of a lot from our own bad writing. Because most of the time it’s glaringly obvious. That’s why writing a full – let me repeat, full – draft is so invaluable to anybody who wants to write a book: you don’t know your own story, not really, until you’ve got it written and ready for reading. It will transform your understanding of your own process, and you will quickly discover what works, what doesn’t, and why. Whether you want to own up to any of that is, of course, up to you, but the principle is there.

I ran it through The Story Grid and then we sat down to go through the places where it went off the rails. Weeks later, I thought we had a very clear understanding that the new lead character for our reverse engineering project would not be based on the character from her previous unsold novel. Rather we’d use a few of the scenes from the novel that really worked and perhaps adapt them to suit as major turning points for the new novel. I left her with a working map of about 60 scenes/chapters that included all of the conventions and obligatory scenes of the spy thriller form (more on this later on). I thought the conventions and obligatory scenes that we’d sketched out were uniquely twisted and innovative to a degree that would delight a thriller fan.

I don’t like reading about this process of doing things “because that’s convention”, but I know for a fact that I love actually doing it. So long as it’s a story I’m not taking too seriously and I’m not too precious about, but that’s not to say that such stories aren’t worth taking seriously; it’s to say that I have my own ideas about how to do things and that changes depending on how I feel, because.

And here’s where my moment of recognition of my own process transforms into a recognition of why exactly it is that I don’t like writing advice of this nature:

She came back six months later with a book far closer to the original manuscript she pulled out of her closet than I thought possible. While scenes were changed, the very problems that made it unworkable a year and a quarter before riddled the narrative. And an obligatory scene—the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, crucial to nail in a thriller—was gone entirely.

I took a deep breath and went through her draft scene by scene again and confronted her about the lack of the crucial obligatory scene.

“Well, I wrote it, but then I didn’t like it, so I cut it,” she said.

I explained that it was fine to do the scene differently, but without it, the book wouldn’t work.

“That’s not true, I read THE LATEST BESTSELLING THRILLER BY BESTSELLING AUTHOR X and he didn’t have that scene…why do I have to?

Here’s a hard thing to grasp and I’m sure I’ll go to my grave trying to explain it. Just because a book becomes a bestseller, it doesn’t make it something to emulate. There are myriad of reasons why some books become bestsellers and still don’t work as Stories (See The Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon). Sometimes, there’s just a hunger for a particular kind of book (Vampires, Zombies, BDSM novels) based on some ephemeral need in humanity’s collective unconscious that drive sales. Trying to write one of those books that get swept up in the tide or even, the ultimate for some, a book seen as the cause of the tide is folly. It’s like selling your house and putting all of your money on number 7 at the roulette table because you have a feeling #7 is going to hit!

Chasing the vagaries of the bestseller list (believing in formula and not form) is the mark of the amateur. That’s putting the by-product of the Story (money, fame, etc.) ahead of the Story itself. Your contempt for form and lust for formula may even give you what you want. You write the next huge thing that makes you hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now what? That kind of writing is equivalent to winning a lottery.

Why not just play the lottery?

A very good point. Yes, you can try and copy the latest fad, but 1) by the time you actually get your book written and published – if ever – that fad may be well and truly over, and 2) that time could have been spent learning how to master the basic storytelling skills that make a story really “pop”. Obviously Coyne has his Story Grid strategy, I like Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and everybody has their own spin, but my point is that I agree that gambling is stupid, and building up a skill set that you can rely on for the rest of your life, never mind your career, is a far better use of your time.

But then he discusses the difference between form (solid storyteling toolkit) and formula (chasing the zeitgest) and says this:

Form scares the big bestselling writers too. That’s why they often do write books that do not abide the obligatory scenes and conventions of their genres. But just because they have a wide audience of people who will buy whatever they write and make those books bestsellers, does not mean that they wrote a story that worked.

… so what?

So what if they don’t have a story that “works” if there are millions of people willing to buy their shit? Oh no, they won’t have artistic integrity; so what if they can pay the bills and feed themselves? They’ll know that they don’t deserve it, and that’s the main thing.

Yeah no fuck off.

This argument is the one that so much writing advice tends to come back around to, like an appeal to authority, where in this case “authority” is not god or the government or the majority, but “integrity” – or, put another way, what matters is not if your story sells, it’s if it deserved to sell. And it makes their argument weak.

It’s why I hate writing advice that isn’t along the lines of “just write the fucking thing”, because that’s the only writing advice that works (and even then, context is everything). The idea that it’s bad to write a story – even a best-selling story – that doesn’t follow Form or Craft or Whatever, simply because it doesn’t follow Form or Craft or Whatever, is inherently circular logic and it pisses me off. It’s how con artists talk. It’s how cult leaders talk. It comes down to the issue of deservingness, and the implication is that the only way to truly deserve success is to do things this way, my way.

This isn’t what Coyne intends here – or maybe it is, he does have a book and editing services to sell and, well, can’t blame him for pitching his wares. But the whole “teach a man to fish” thing is a fine and valid point to stop at. Why discourage people from doing what they want with their writing? Because it’ll save them time? It’s their fucking time; they have to learn this shit somehow. Let them do what they want. Point out that formula is a gamble and form is an investment, sure, but don’t try to make it sound like only one of these things deserves merit, and it just so happens to be the thing you personally endorse. Because writing is something you have to do for love, unless you have a guaranteed paycheck – because so often, you don’t have a guaranteed paycheck. So you’d better fucking love it. And if you’re doing what you love, why not do it the way that you love it?

With all that said, though, Form or Craft or Whatever – it is important. It doesn’t have to be theirs, whoever “they” are, and yes I am very much a person who has problems with authority, if said authority likes to shove it in people’s faces. I came to the conclusion that I enjoy being formulaic because it brings me a sense of “joining in”, learning the rules of a game that many other people are invested in and being good at those rules. That’s the kind of “form” I subscribe to, and that will change between cultures, sub-cultures, particular editors and publishing houses, etc. But it’s a conclusion that I came to myself; and yes, I did have to get off my high horse for it. I did have to concede that I was being a bit of a snob for writing off what is honestly a very enjoyable, never mind solid, way of telling stories. But I didn’t have to. Suggesting that people have to not be snobs is pernicious. Why not? It’s a free country. Maybe don’t expect success out of it; maybe don’t expect to not be treated like a dick if you’re being a dick to other people, but when it comes to telling stories your own way – well, tell them your own way.

And this all reminds me why this blog was never intended to be a writing advice blog: I don’t want to become one of these people who holds themselves up as an authority and tries to peddle secrets to success. Maybe it’s just a matter of delivery. Maybe that’s my main problem with Coyne’s argument. But it still sounds like a sales pitch, and buddy, I don’t got no money. I’m a writer. I just write because it’s fun.

When I actually can be fucked writing. And, I will concede, this article absolutely reminded me to stop being lazy and making excuses for myself. I gotta get the work done. No short-cuts. I gotta start over from scratch. And I’m kinda looking forward to it now.

Yes, you can disagree with somebody’s argument and still find something worthwhile in it. I guess humans are just complicated like that.

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